January 23, 2011

Don't Change Your Husband (1919)

Well, couldn't make it through the 'teens without at least one all-out morality play, could we?  In Don't Change Your Husband, Gloria Swanson (in her star-making role) does exactly that and learns to regret it.  The movie is equal-opportunity however - her husband (the first one) is in many ways the real main character as he must learn to improve his ways in order to win her back.  Perhaps the overall thesis is that all men are scum, but some men are scum down to the soul, while others do genuinely care, and can, to a reasonable extent, be made presentable.  Pretty close to the mark, I have to admit.  This is a morality play, but one that gets considerable mileage - and humor - from modest expectations.

James and Leila Porter (Swanson and Elliott Dexter) live a life of passionless monotony.  He hides behind his newspaper, chewing on cigars and onions, apparently oblivious to Leila's boredom and frustration.  Nevertheless, she repeatedly fends off the advances of Schuyler Van Sutphen (Lew Cody), an obvious creep from the moment he appears.  But after James forgets their anniversary, and then pilfers an anniversary present from someone else, Schuyler's persistence begins to wear her down.  He makes a great show of what man's responsibilities ought to be to a woman, promising her Pleasure, Wealth, and Love, which provides director Cecil B. DeMille a chance to indulge his trademark mythical flashbacks.  It's all very silly, and the comedy strictly goes for low-hanging fruit, but it's also deft and surprisingly entertaining.

The key is James, the jilted husband.  As I said, he's really the main character, and he's an important balancing act.  The first half of the movie relies heavily on demonizing James in order to justify Leila's eventual choice to leave him.  But by the end the audience needs to be rooting for the two of them to get back together.  It accomplishes this quite well.  James appears first as an utterly clueless sad sack, but as the situation gets more dire, his cluelessness becomes a little endearing, and derision turns to pity.  In a startling and unexpected moment, Leila confronts him with her desire to leave, and, utterly forlorn and defeated, he states his love for her will not allow him to hold on to her any longer than she wishes.  Thus his good heart is proved, and his steep climb to redemption begins.  We root for him in the end because he works so hard to earn it.  Come to think of it, the whole movie is a bit like that.  It's perfectly simple and predictable, but it doesn't take its story for granted.  It builds itself carefully, and earns every laugh and every change of heart.  That's the difference between this and a bad, paint-by-numbers romantic comedy: it's not really originality that matters, as long as you're earnest.

Beyond that however I'm left with not much to say.  It was a decent story, well told.  Again the photography was more primitive than Stella Maris, but handsome.  The print wasn't great, with very crushed blacks and what appeared to be heavy analog sharpening, but that's another matter.  So I guess I'll just move on and say a few words about our followup movie...

Sunset Blvd.

Naturally we had to watch this after seeing DeMille and Swanson get their start together.  It was a joy getting some of the little references to the silent era with it all so fresh in our heads.  However, I have to say this viewing was actually a bit diminished by the comparison.  Sortof -- maybe.  What I mean is, while Sunset Blvd. is obviously very nostalgic for the silent film era, it shows little interest in the actual style of silent films.  In short: there's a lot of talking.  Oy with all the talking!

It's narrated, of course - like any good film noir.  And the narrator is a screenwriter.  And not for a second does he let us forget it.  He has to describe everything he sees - it's like a compulsion.  "It was like...," "She was like...," "I felt...," "It seemed..."  Blah, blah, blah.  He comes upon Norma Desmond's decrepit palace, and on and on he goes about what it looks like.  I know what it looks like!  I'm looking at it right now!  That's the whole thing with film.  The location scout and the production designer and the set decorator and many others have all done their jobs admirably so that I can see it for myself.  But he has to yap.  It was, frankly, quite amusing.

But the reason I say "maybe" it diminished the film is that I'm not entirely sure this wasn't done on purpose.  After all, there is Ms. Desmond's iconic line, as she reminisces about her glory days, "We didn't need dialogue, we had faces!"  It's very pointedly delivered.  But perhaps more pointed is the scene where she entertains Gillis with a few old routines.  After she leaves to change, he becomes caught up, as he often does, with idle narration.  He laments (correctly) that audiences don't appreciate his craft.  They think actors just make it all up as they go along.  They don't realize movies have writers.  And it's significant all this is said in narration, because the actor isn't doing a damn thing on set but laying there with a dumb look on his face.  I guess he still gets to read the words, off-camera, but nonetheless voice-over is perhaps the purest channel a screenwriter has between himself and the audience.  ...And just at that moment, Swanson bursts back in to perform a very passable impression of Charlie Chaplin's tramp.  For one thing, the routine obviously has no dialogue.  For another, Chaplin was famous for not working from scripts in the traditional sense.  His scenes were fleshed out on camera (wasting a lot of very expensive film) numerous times before the final take - essentially an actor making it up as he went alongOn camera.  Bringing Chaplin into the scene was clearly no accident.  It's just one of many potshots the movie takes at its own protagonist (there's also the frequent suggestions that Betty is a better writer than Gillis, not to mention the wordsmith's ultimate fate at the hands of a silent actress).  But none of this is ever belabored.  It isn't what the story's about - it's about Norma Desmond.  Still, for people in the know, it does seem to be having more than a little fun at its own expense.  At least I like to think so.

NEXT WEEK: The Teens have been a fascinating and quirky decade.  We've watched motion pictures grow up and find their footing.  But now they begin to hit their full stride as we kick off the Twenties with Chaplin himself in the Tramp's first feature film, The Kid.

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